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Wartime Gardens

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Throughout American history, citizens have often turned to gardening in response to times of financial difficulty.  During World War I and World War II, wartime gardens were cultivated to combat food shortages.  Communities and individuals across the nation responded to the increased demand for food and canned goods, both at home and abroad, by growing their own produce using the resources available in their own backyards.  These gardens went by different names (Liberty Gardens in World War I, Victory Gardens in World War II), but all of the wartime garden movements centered on the idea that Americans could contribute to the war effort at home by combating food shortages through self-sustaining cultivation.

As kitchen gardens proliferated in American backyards all over the United States during World War I, the Federal Government created the National War Garden Commission to monitor the progress of these gardens and encourage participation even after the armistice.  Through a powerful campaign of posters, pamphlets, leaflets, and cartoons the National War Garden Commission and the Department of Agriculture emphasized participation in these gardens and the conservation of scarce resources (such as food) as an act of patriotism.  Through these communication media on victory gardens, the United States government hoped to redirect the American consumer culture to reflect the direction of the country’s wartime needs.  The campaign was an outstanding success and by the end of the War, nearly 20 million Americans had their own gardens and 40% of the country’s produce supply came from homegrown sources. Pamphlets produced by the Department of Agriculture provided Americans with the information they needed to plant and harvest crops, as well as a message of the importance of frugality to the national war effort.

These wartime forms of urban farming differed from many of the grassroots movements that have historically utilized agriculture as activism, in that victory gardens were backed and publicized by the federal government in a top-down national campaign.  Wartime Gardens were portrayed as pathways to American prosperity and rebuilding in the wake of the devastation of the war.  Many cities, like Detroit, converted vacant land to be cultivated by citizens.  In this way, the community and its members – especially women – came together through pooled resources to participate in a small act of patriotism towards their country.  Within Michigan, Detroit’s victory garden design and campaigns were copied in other areas such as Hyland Park.  Cities used the same model to begin planting gardens in elementary schools and junior highs in an effort to keep children interested and involved in the war efforts. Urban agricultural campaigns based on the concept of the production of food for security and independence would appear later in American history, especially during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  Though these campaigns differed, the 1940s ideal of food production by the individual to benefit a larger cause would continue to influence urban agriculture and farming movements of the future.

  • Russel, M.A., Highland Park’s School Victory Gardens, Vol. 6, No. 8. (Highland Park, MI: The University of California Press on behalf of the National Association of Biology Teachers, May 1944), 171-174.
  • Witkowski, Terrence H., World War II Poster Campaigns: Preaching Frugality to American Consumers, (Journal of Advertising, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring 2003), 69-82.
  • Gowdy-Wygant, Ceceilia. “Cultivating Victory: The Women’s Land Army and the Victory Garden Movement.” Pittsburgh, PA: Published by University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013. 165-182.

Click here to see all narratives about agriculture and gardening

Click here to see further reading on agriculture and gardening

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